A trio of hand-carved sperm whales, crafted in Ogasawara
…and also this lovely humpback whale, which I named Poto, in honour of a wonderful baby whale we had the privilege of encountering toward the end of my stay in the Tonga this season.
Beautiful carving of a humpback whale, sent to me from Ogasawara
Poto was the 19th calf we ID-ed in Tonga.
Yes…I know I’m way behind on putting together my calf summary for Tonga this season. Please bear with me. After I get back from Ambon, I should be staying put for a while, so I’ll have a bit of time to catch my breath and catch up with the calf ID project.
I’ve been wanting to post this photograph from my recent trip to Ogasawara for a while, but haven’t been able to find time to do so because preparation for my upcoming trip to Ambon has been so crazy-hectic.
Anyway, this is a photo of an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus).
Top-down view of an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin
It’s not a particularly rare or unusual animal, but I like the photo because of the angle. It’s not often that you come across a top-down photo of a dolphin, probably because it’s not all that often that you find yourself…well…on top of a dolphin!
Actually, I saw this animal surfacing slowly to take a breath, and I swam over specifically to get this shot…a slightly different take on an otherwise familiar animal.
Having a 10-17mm Tokina lens attached to a Canon 7D camera helped a lot. The fisheye perspective helped to accentuate the streamlined curvature of the sleek marine mammal’s body, and the 7D’s rapid shutter rate gave me several successive shots to frame the animal exactly right.
Friendly sperm whale encountered west of Chichijima, Ogasawara Photograph taken under permit
Here’s Rick’s comment:
Hey Tony, any more info about this particular whale? Is it a male (kinda hard to tell from this angle), and how big was it? I went to your blog page and didn’t find much more info there, just that it was very friendly. The reason I’m asking, is that the entire front, flattened portion of it’s head is gray, and there are lots of scars all over the head and around the mouth. I haven’t seen that much gray in any underwater sperm whale photo, and according to both scientists, and the old time Yankee whalers, that much gray on the front was most often found only on older, and therefore much larger, male sperm whales.
I certainly noticed the grey colouration right away when we came across this whale, largely because it made the whale easy to spot, but also, as Rick alludes to, most sperm whales don’t seem to have so much grey.
I wasn’t aware of any possible correlation with the whale’s age or sex, however.
Anyway, I promised Rick I’d find and post another photo of the same whale, showing the underside so we can at least decide if it’s a male or not, so here it is:
Sperm whale hanging in the water Photograph taken under permit
And here’s a zoomed-in view of the genital area:
Close-up of the whale’s underside Photograph taken under permit
The whale wasn’t very big, at least as far as sperm whales go. I’d estimate it was 12 metres long at most, and it didn’t have the bulk of a mature male. I’ve been in the water with two mature bull sperm whales, and believe me…when you see a big bull…you know it!
Anyway, the colouration is intriguing. If anyone else has any insights or relevant knowledge, please share!
Sperm whales weren’t the only thing we saw in Ogasawara.
We came across two species of dolphins (Tursiops aduncus and Stenella attenuata), as well as a family of Cuvier’s beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris…I came oh so very tantalisingly close to getting in-water photos of them!).
We also rescued a baby Bulwer’s petrel (Bulweria bulwerii) that might have left the safety of its nest too soon. It was adrift in the water, unable to fly. Three of us managed to surround it, allowing me to grab hold of the frightened bird and take it back to land to be nursed to health and set free a few days later.
The most adrenaline-inducing non-sperm whale encounters, however, were with two large marlins that buzzed us at close quarters on two separate occasions…both times while we were preoccupied with large cetaceans.
This one was probably around two to two-and-a-half metres long (without the pointy part):
One of the marlins that buzzed us during a whale encounter
I’ve gone for years without ever seeing a marlin in the water, and now I’ve seen three in the past three months: one in Tonga, and two in Ogasawara.
By the way, does anyone know what kind of marlin this is? The local fishermen suggested that the fish were either striped or blue marlins.
Photographing sperm whales can be a challenge for many reasons, including the fact that…well…they’re not always terribly photogenic. They often just look like big brown blubber logs with stubby fins, a tail and a mouth.
Making sperm whales look nice can be challenging.
Sometimes, you have to look between the lines…or in this instance, between the jaw lines…to see something interesting:
See the leftover squid arm? Note the big teeth too.
I have to confess that I didn’t notice the squid arm while I was in the water, since the whale passed by at relatively high speed. The swells were also considerable, which made framing the whale a challenge as well.
I can’t be 100% certain, but I suspect the leftover calamari segment was from an Architeuthis squid. From the above photo, it looks like the arm was attached to the whale’s face, perhaps as a result of the “teeth” on the squid’s suckers, which look like this (photo below from last year):
The exhibition started on 10 July and winds up on 26 September. As of the middle of August, over 200,000 people have visited the exhibit!
Female sperm whale with giant squid in its mouth.
My photograph of a female sperm whale consuming part of an Architeuthis giant squid is on display as part of the exhibit, and I am scheduled to give a talk on what it’s like to be in the water with sperm whales on Friday, 24 September, from 18:00 to 18:30.
Since the museum is in Tokyo, I’ll be doing my best to give the talk entirely in Japanese (gulp). Fortunately, Tadasu Yamada from the Division of Vertebrates in the Department of Zoology at the Museum will be on hand to help translate when I exceed the limits of my Japanese vocabulary.
I’m not exactly sure how the talk will go, but I’m planning to take along some sperm whale images and video clips from my recent trips to Ogasawara and Dominica.
If you can make it to the talk, I’ll tell you what it’s like to be in the water next to the largest living carnivore on the planet, to have your fin chewed by a sperm whale, to get ping-ed by sperm whale sonar, to watch a large group of socialising whales, and even to stroke an unusual sperm whale named Scar that seems to seek out human attention.
My talk is free, but there is an admission charge of 1,400 Yen to get into the museum. There’s a special rate of 2,000 Yen for two people together if you enter the museum after 17:00 on that day.
Meet my new friend, a 50cm hand-carved wooden sperm whale, which arrived earlier today from Ogasawara.
The carving was specially made by an incredibly talented artist who lives in Ogasawara.
My friend and fellow photographer Douglas Seifert (who’s website has been “under construction” since the inception of the internet) has a carving similar to this one, and there’s a third on its way over to Eric Cheng.
I’ve named my new cetacean companion Scar, in honour of the friendly male sperm whale that I met in Dominica earlier this year.
It’s been a while since I’ve updated my Upcoming Trips page, largely because I’ve been travelling so much that it’s been difficult for me to hammer out logistical details and communicate with relevant counter-parties.
The year-end quiet period has given me some time to (just barely) catch up, so here’s a long overdue update of some of my trips for the near future, set out in chronological order. (I’m doing my best to keep my Upcoming Trips page updated, so bookmark that page if you want to check back later for more trips.)
The Night Safari Lembeh (27 Feb-6 Mar): I’ll be heading to Kasawari Lembeh Resort again soon, this time for the primary purpose of checking out the night life. As far as I know, this Night Safari trip is the first-ever organised effort to focus on diving at night in the Lembeh Strait. It’ll be fascinating(!) to see what happens late at night, when most (sane) people are asleep.
In addition to David and Sanah from Scubacam, Aey and Mean from FiNS will be on this trip…and Eric Cheng will be joining as well a few days into the trip. If you’re looking for advice about photography or how to prepare your images for print, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better-informed or nicer group of people.
There are still a few spots left for this trip, so click here to drop David and Sanah an email to sign up! More details here.
Humpback Whale Acoustic Research in Tonga (29 Jul – 7 Aug): In addition to the trips I have scheduled to swim with humpback whales in August this year, I’ve been working with a marine acoustics researcher friend of mine to try to set up a long-term study of humpback whale acoustics.
By way of background, my friend Dr. John Potter is a brilliant acoustics researcher who has studied underwater acoustics and marine mammals for over 20 years, pioneering techniques and a new understanding of how marine mammals use sound and how they’re affected by man-made sound in the ocean. John is a frequent consultant to sonar companies, navies, governments and NGOs concerned about the acoustic impact on the marine environment. Basically…he knows his stuff. In fact, he was the marine acoustics expert featured in the movie The Cove.
I first met John when he was the head of the Acoustic Research Laboratory at the National University of Singapore, which he started back in 1996. Among the interesting things he shared with me was an amazing video that he and other PhD friends put together showing the source, directionality and strength of humpback singer song in Hawaiian waters…a short sample of which is below:
Though it may not be immediately obvious, this is ground-breaking stuff. By using rebreathers, video cameras, audio recorders and distance measuring devices, John and the other researchers were able to construct this real-time representation of where a humpback’s sound comes from, how strong it is (in decibels) at various distances, and also the directionality of sound.
Cool, eh? (Actually, even more cool is the fact that John et al were the ones in the water on rebreathers gathering data first-hand!)
After several years of brainstorming and planning, we’re ready to try undertaking a new project in Tonga. We won’t be using rebreathers, but we will be pursuing new insights into the characteristics and behaviour of humpback whale singers.
The basic idea is to use a cross-disciplinary approach of combining data in the form of photos, video, high-frequency (i.e., whale-safe) ranging systems, and custom-designed hydrophone arrays to measure singer size, record their songs and other social sounds, and try to discern whether there are any meaningful correlations between songs and whales.
Our intention is to consider basic but as-yet unanswered questions such as whether bigger whales sing louder than smaller ones, whether some whales have deeper voices than others, what role if any age plays in song structure and singing behaviour, etc.
In other words, John and I would like to combine my knowledge of the whales in Tonga with his acoustics expertise to achieve something meaningful.
In order to undertake this project without having to beg for funds, we’re asking for help from people who’d like to take part in this research effort by joining us for a few days on the water, aboard John’s 52ft (on deck) yacht Jocara, which is now based in Tonga (yes, he relocated his boat to Tonga in 2007 in part as preparation for this), managed and operated by our mutual friend Christy.
We’re hoping to kick off this effort with two back-to-back trips in 2010:
Trip 1: 29 Jul – 2 Aug (4 nights aboard Jocara)
Trip 2: 3 Aug – 7 Aug (4 nights aboard Jocara)
To cover operating costs, we’re looking for four people on each of the trips, with cost/ person at US$1250. This includes everything while on the boat, as well as discussions that John will lead about marine mammal acoustics, and marine mammal photography advice/ discussions about humpbacks in Tonga from me (excludes accommodation, meals, etc. off the boat, and air travel).
While this isn’t going to be as intensive a photography-oriented trip as the others I have planned, we will get into the water at every opportunity, and we will be taking photos and recording video.
If you’re interested in learning more about humpback whales and helping out with cutting-edge acoustics study of whale song, please contact me via my contact form.
To be honest, this is a departure from the type of trip I usually do, but it’s something that I believe will be worthwhile over the long-run in expanding our knowledge about these graceful marine mammals.
As with the humpback whale calf-count that I started a couple of years ago, John and I will make every effort to share via the internet any insights we gather, and we look forward to feedback and contributions from all interested parties.
Sperm Whales, Ogasawara (early-mid October): Following on the incredible success of last year’s inaugural trip to Ogasawara, I’m planning another visit to Ogasawara in October this year.
Among the highlights of last year’s trip, we photographed and video-ed a group of female sperm whales eating a giant squid and possibly teaching the calf in the group how to hunt for squid (which means this year…we’ll have to photograph a giant squid engaged in a life-or-death struggle with a sperm whale!)
While in Ogasawara, I also realised that it’s possible to ID sperm whales by markings on their lower ventral areas, and I subsequently compiled a summary of nine individual whales that we encountered. I’m hoping to build on this ID catalog over time, working with the local whale watching authorities to see if we can document repeat visits to the area by these enigmatic cetaceans.
The exact trip dates depend on the ferry schedule between Tokyo and Ogasawara. Last year, the ferry schedule was only announced in July, and the trip was from 8 to 19 October (though I had a good idea of the probable schedule a few weeks prior to the official announcement).
Also, the exact cost depends upon the class of berth aboard the ferry, the number of people on the trip, and the number of days we’re out on the water…so participation in this trip requires a measure of flexibility. A reasonable estimate is Yen 600,000-700,000/ person for 8-9 days on the water.
Yes, I realise that’s not terribly specific…but that’s the nature of the situation, and it’s totally worth the effort and pain-in-the-rear factor when you’re face-to-face with sperm whales. Just ask any of the people who were with me this year!
If you’re interested in going to Ogasawara in early- to mid-October to look for sperm whales, please contact me via my contact form.
The Night Safari Ambon (7-16 Nov): Yes, yes…I’m obsessed with night life this year. After helping to plan the Night Safari Lembeh trip, I realised that the conditions in Ambon are ideal for a Night Safari type of excursion as well.
First, Maluku Divers have just recently opened their new resort, which is located right atop the best muck dive sites in Ambon. This means access to dive sites is easy…and night diving is possible/ practical in the area for the first time in many years.
Second, the new resort was designed and built by my good friend Yos, who coincidentally designed and built Kasawari-Lembeh Resort as well. Yos is a diver himself, and he has really good taste, so I have no doubt that the accommodations and facilities at the new resort in Ambon will be as nice and photographer-friendly as at Kasawari-Lembeh Resort.
And finally, the critter life in Ambon harbour is simply amazing! Need I say more?
I’m arranging The Night Safari Ambon in conjunction with Eric Cheng and Wetpixel, so there will no doubt be lots of experienced underwater photographers on the trip with lots of stories and advice to share. If you’re interested in joining this adventure, please refer to the trip summary below:
Dates/ Diving Schedule: Arrive 7 November 2010, depart on 16 November.
The planned diving schedule comprising 21 dives is:
7 November: Arrive/ set up cameras
8 -9 November: Normal day-diving schedule
10 November: Transition schedule: 14:30; 17:30; 20:30
11-13 November: Night schedule: 17:30; 20:30; 23:30
14 November: Transition schedule: 14:30; 17:30; 20:30
15 November: Off-gas/ Optional land tour (separate cost)
16 November: Depart
Diving Style: Ambon has a combination of reef and muck diving. For this trip, we will be concentrating on muck/ critter diving, and we will devote much of the trip to diving in the evening and night. Although the resort is situated at the best critter sites, we will dive from boats. The dive sites are located inside Ambon bay, and most of the time, we will be diving in relatively shallow water.
Because we will be diving a lot at night, you will need to bring adequate lighting. A minimum of two torches (three would be better) plus lots of batteries would be a good idea.
Also, while the muck sites are sheltered and shallow, there can be strong current at times. Our night dives will be concentrated during the period between new moon and first quarter moon, so in theory, the current will not be strong.
However, you never know with Mother Nature, so we’ll need to be flexible and adapt to prevailing conditions.
Finally, the dive sites we will be diving are where the newly described Maluku frogfish (Histiophryne psychedelica) has been found. We will, of course, hope to see this elusive fish, but to date, only a handful of these animals have been spotted, so please manage your expectations accordingly.
Accommodation: Twin-share rooms at the newly completed Maluku Divers dive resort, which is located at the prime muck dive sites at Laha. All rooms have hot water and aircon, as well as two editing desks with charging stations for batteries. The resort is equipped with back-up generators, so we’ll be insulated from power outages on the island. There is no Nitrox available at this time.
Meals are Indonesian fare, primarily comprising fresh fish and seasonal vegetables. If you have any special dietary requirements, please inform us well in advance so the resort can try to accommodate. Please bear in mind that Ambon is a remote location and some things are not always readily available.
Getting There: There are regular flights to Ambon from Bali, Manado and Jakarta on Lion Air and Batavia Air. While it is possible to make reservations yourself, it’s best to let the resort handle domestic flight reservations, coordinated through Dan Baldocchi. Domestic itineraries and prices generally firm up within three months of the date concerned, so expect that final itineraries will become clear around mid-August.
I’ve just arrived at Kasawari Lembeh Resort, and I’m getting ready to get some sleep to rest up for a full day of diving tomorrow (hurray!). Before I hit the sack, I thought I’d post one final set of images from Ogasawara…a couple of photographs of Bryde’s whales.
Our final day in Ogasawara was a beautiful one…winds calm, sun bright, water a perfect blue…but not a sperm whale in sight. After we had cruised around for several hours without much to show for our efforts, keen-eyed Julia Sumerling spotted something far off in the distance.
We lost whatever it was, then saw it again, then wandered around semi-aimlessly…and eventually, late in the afternoon, we zeroed in enough to see that Julia had spotted a pair of elusive Bryde’s whales (pronounced “brooda’s” whales).
There are at least two species of Bryde’s whales, Balaenoptera brydei and Balaenoptera edeni. According to the captain and his wife, the pair we came across were the latter.
I believe that encounters with Bryde’s whales are rare. They certainly are in Ogasawara. Makoto-san has been working with cetaceans in Ogasawara for over 20 years, and this was only his second encounter. Tomoko-san had never seen a Bryde’s whale in local waters.
The pair was travelling at high speed, spending a lot of time submerged, coming up for a few short breaths before diving again.
Though obviously together, the pair didn’t stay with one another all the time. They split up and put quite a bit of distance between them on several occasions, which contributed to the difficulty of tracking them. Fast-moving, zig-zagging, submerged whales aren’t exactly easy to follow.
At one point, the pair pulled up alongside the boat. With crystal-clear visibility and bright sun overhead, we could see their entire bodies.
My first impression was: “Wow…beautiful.”
At roughly 12 metres in length, the Bryde’s whales were sleek, streamlined, refined. The best word I can think of to describe them is “elegant”.
By the time we had found the whales and managed to get close, it was late in the afternoon, so we weren’t able to track them for long. The chances for an in-water encounter were slim, given their high-speed and general elusiveness, but after securing a few topside ID images, I suited up and waited for an opportunity to get in…which came just as we were about to give up.
One of the whales swam alongside, the captain dropped engine power, and in we went. The whale kept going, but when I dived down to get a better look, it turned and swam parallel to me for just a few brief seconds…long enough for me to take a handful of pictures…before it turned away and continued going wherever it was going.
The crater-like scars on the whale’s body (clearly visible in the image below) are probably from bites by cookie-cutter sharks, deep dwellers that make a living by carving out chunks of flesh from larger animals like this.
My virgin experience seeing a Bryde’s whale in the water…a perfect end to a perfect trip.